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Car reviews - Kia - Sportage - Platinum 2.4 5-dr wagon

Launch Story

2 Aug 2010

SO ... what’s it like then, this striking new Sportage?

Maybe Kia should follow controversial English/Sri Lankan hip-hop artist M.I.A’s lead and spell its name ‘K.I.A’, because the Hyundai offshoot is not letting sleeping dogs (an apt metaphor for some of its previous products) lie.

Sharp, urbane, in-your-face and definitely not for the meek, the emerging South Korean brand that once offered feeble Mazda cast-offs like the Shuma and Credos is suddenly tuned in and switched on.

“This is a landmark model” the Kia people constantly reminded us during the SL-series Sportage launch in New Zealand this month, and – for a refreshing change – the hyperbole wasn’t all hyper-BS.

Consider the looks.

The third-gen Sportage’s styling is the work of a 30-something ex-Bertone Italian who – besides citing architecture, Apple and all the other blah-blah-blah inspirational designer stuff you’ve heard a million times already – digs music and is friends with the guy who penned the new Range Rover Evoque.

Hmm … both are wedgy, edgy, brand boundary-pushing compact SUVs created to lure young males. Sure, the latter’s demographic might be a wee bit more upwardly mobile, but getting a million miles away from mediocrity is – like M.I.A’s provocative prose – a priority for Kia and Land Rover alike.

Yet the Sportage (Hugo Boss suit crisp and clean and identifiably itself from 200 metres) is essentially the patchy ix35 (busy and ultra contemporary but unoriginal – hello Ford Kuga – like a Lady Gaga outfit) underneath … but without the patchiness.

Consider that reverse angle C-pillar – masculine and buff for sure, but it means the door aperture aids entry and exit. It also extends side vision for the driver, and counteracts some of the hemmed-in feeling that the high waistline creates.

“I like the feeling of metal around me, of a car feeling strong, with a certain window-to-metal ratio,” designer Massimo Fruschella says.

However, the facts are that those fat pillars can hide a hippo when negotiating a roundabout kids in the back will have a high sill to peer over and forget about reverse parking confidently unaided by the beepers and rear camera available on higher-line models. But at least most people will have no problem seeing out ahead.

Inside, the newest Sportage is nothing like the daggy outgoing version in that your senses aren’t ambushed by the insidiously low-rent odour of cheap plastic (we snuck into an old one to check – aagh!).

Instead, a groovy multi-layered fascia awaits, harmoniously presented, easy to fathom and interesting to behold. The instruments couldn’t be clearer. The controls feel good to touch. The steering wheel is Kia’s best by far. And the seats seem sufficiently comfy.

Everything feels really meticulously built in our admittedly pre-production press cars.

There’s significantly more space in all directions including for those seated out back, except for headroom – and that’s only obvious in vehicles fitted with the panoramic sunroof. This reveals another of the Kia designer’s magic tricks: the Sportage is properly RAV4 sized despite appearing more compact. All that baloney about ‘coupe’ lines does seem to tighten up the styling.

On the other hand, the top-line Platinum’s cabin offers little visual titivation over the entry level Si while much of the plastic material feels hard rather than soft and gooey on contact.

Further cabin drawbacks include a tailgate that – though deep for easy loading – lacks the lift-up rear window facility of the old Sportage (and Hyundai Tucson) the rear glass is shallow, further hampering reversing vision over coarse country roads the noise intrusion was marked and there are no rear vent outlets.

And now on to the way the new SL Sportage behaves from behind that pretty wheel.

Whether the Sportage scores visually over its rivals – namely the ix35, Nissan Dualis, Mazda CX-7 and Holden Captiva – is down to personal taste but even the most cynical observer will like what Kia has managed to change under the car.

The revisions to the front end as well as the MacPherson strut/multi-link rear means that the steering feels well weighted and direct, avoiding the twitchy feel that blights the ix35 flagship we tested recently. And the ride seems more absorbent without losing much (if any) body control through cornering.

Admittedly our drive impressions were fashioned on the fabulously scenic B-roads of the beautiful South Island around Queenstown, so we cannot draw definite conclusions.

Still, over rough and gravel patches in both the 2WD front-drive and AWD all-wheel drive variants, the Sportage seems to ably walk the fine line between comfort and composure. Yes, the Dualis feels sportier (never mind the CX-7), but that old disconnected rubbery stiffness of most Korean SUVs has thankfully been exorcised in this case.

While we’re on driveability, the Magna-supplied Dynamax AWD gear that was honed in NZ demonstrated impressive traction with minimum torque disruption when hurried along on bitumen and gravel pockmarked with holes and black ice. It appears to be a credible advancement on the Haldex systems many of the Euros such ass Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda, Volvo and Saab employ. Apparently the ix35 eventually will get this system too, but not for now.

Meanwhile, all three four-cylinder engine variations (122kW/197Nm 2.0-lire and 130kW/227Nm 2.4-litre petrol and 135kW/393Nm R2.0 turbo-diesel) were sampled, and all were mated to Hyundai/Kia’s new six-speed automatic gearbox.

The volume-selling 2.0L base is smooth, quite revvy, a little languid at take off, raucous in the higher rev ranges, quiet on the open road speed limit and absolutely adequate for hauling the 1403kg Si 2WD auto about in its expected urban habitat.

A similar description applies to the SLi 2.4L AWD auto too, except it feels a little fleeter of foot from standstill, and seems to have a bit more in the mid ranges.

Frankly, after the surprise-and-delight styling, cabin and dynamics, the petrol engine choices – while utterly sufficient – are perhaps the Sportage’s least convincing aspects.

But the R2.0 … strong, virtually silent from inside the car and generating thrust with turbine smoothness compared to the petrol four-pots, it remains one of the industry’s leading oil-swilling engines, and certainly one of the most compelling aspects of the latest Sportage.

Priced in the mid $30Ks, however, it couldn’t be further away from Kia’s cheap-as-chips positioning (constant driveaway ads don’t help), and presents a real challenge for buyers who won’t see beyond the Kia badge when it spills into (base petrol) VW Tiguan territory.

Yet the SLi R2.0 diesel – easily the pick of the new Sportages – is a sweet, swift and slick package with few vices that we could ascertain in our all-too-brief drive along some of the most gorgeous scenery on the planet. Obviously we need more time with the Kia on Aussie roads, but after just one day with the car we really look forward to that.

So there you go – for the first time Kia has a compelling contender in one of the most important segments in the Australian car industry.

We admit that we had only tepid hopes for the SL Sportage before the launch after our experience in the Hyundai ix35.

However, after seeing how striking the car looks in the flesh, and – more importantly – feeling it from behind the wheel, we are mightily impressed what on paper appears to be a modest degree of Aussie chassis input seems a lot on the road.

Kia expects to sell about 300 Sportages a month, but in a class that is populated with middle-of-the-road designs that lack both elegance and conviction, these forecasts may be a tad conservative. We can’t imagine the intended male demographic being too turned on by a Honda CR-V.

This is why – now that the product is moving with unprecedented pace in the right direction – the company needs to funk up its image and cred, M.I.A. style.

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